“I got into climbing mostly because everyone in my family was already climbing, even before I was born,” says 12-year-old Mirko Caballero. “I guess you could say I was born in the gym.”
The thee-time national champion in bouldering is quick to note, however, that he didn’t get serious about climbing until much later—at the ripe old age 7, after a stint as a gymnast, during which he developed good core strength and flexibility.
By age 9, Los Gatos-based Caballero sent his first V10, and the following year sent 20 V8 to V11 problems and his first 5.13a. He’s been a member of the U.S. National Team since 2010, and was named national champion in both bouldering (2011, 2012, 2013), and speed (2011, 2012). Earlier this year he took first in the advanced youth category at the Hueco Rock Rodeo.
Caballero, who emailed Outside while bouldering Magic Wood in Switzerland, says his immediate goals are to better his technique and pure power. “In the past year my power has gotten much better, but I would like to progress even further,” he says. “I like to push myself into harder and harder climbs all the time.”
He’s also branched out from bouldering to sport climbing. “I even tried some big wall climbing in Yosemite this spring,” he says, recognizing that he’s lucky to have supportive parents who allow her to travel. “I've climbed in lots of amazing crags in the USA and Europe, but I really hope I can go to South Africa and Australia soon. There are so many amazing places to climb!”
Ever since the so-called Everest brawl on April 27, reports have emerged from western climbers and Sherpas who were not involved or, in some cases, even witness to the fight. The stories have sparked plenty of controversy, and many were based on second-hand information. None of the Sherpas at the center of the fight have told their stories, but in a recent interview, a Sherpa on the rope-fixing team who was directly involved in the altercation shared his side of events. International Mountain Guides’ two-time Everest summiter Tashi Sherpa, 30, spoke with reporter Deepak Adhikari in Kathmandu. The interview was conducted in Nepali and translated into English.
Walk us through the chronology. Give us a step-by-step recounting of what happened on the Lhotse Face. In a meeting at Camp II, we had decided that no one would climb until we finished our job. We were aware that many climbers would hike up from Camp II to acclimatize. Fixing ropes is a sensitive and huge task. So, we strictly alerted everyone not to go high up.
We were a team consisting of belayers and leaders. In our job, if one of us makes a small mistake, another member can be injured. So, we have to be extra careful. We were at 22,000 feet at around 8 a.m on April 27. We saw that three foreign climbers were climbing up. We were all using the same radio frequency so when we saw them, we asked other Sherpas to stop them because ice can fall from high up. But they didn’t stop. Nobody knew who they were. Someone said they were Russians. When we inquired about them through the radio, we were told that they were Russians and had a permit to climb Lhotse. Even then, we tried to stop them, but they didn’t listen and continued to climb using our ropes. They turned out to be three renowned climbers and guides—Simone Moro, Ueli Steck, and Jonathan Griffith.
They told us: We will not disturb you; we will take another route. After their assurance, we allowed them to go ahead. By this time we had reached 23,000 feet. Our goal for the day was to complete the rope fixing up to Camp III and then go 600 feet farther. When the Europeans traversed past Mingma Tenzing, our lead fixer, ice tumbled down and hit one of our crew members, a Sherpa who works for Adventure Consultants. His face had bruises. This hasn’t been revealed yet. (Earlier, we lied to people saying that it was from a slip, but in fact a chunk of ice had struck him.) I don’t know whether they had dislodged the ice intentionally or whether it was just an accident, but pieces of ice were dislodged and that was the main issue. Mingma told us that it was becoming too dangerous to continue. These people climbed up despite our call not to do so. Mingma said we should descend, so we followed his instructions.
This message was also delivered to our coordinator Greg Vernovage [the leader of the International Mountain Guides Expedition] at Camp II. Mingma had already anchored the rope and while he was rappelling down, Simone approached him and began the verbal abuse. “How much money do you need?” he asked Mingma. As this was going on, Ueli Steck stormed in and grabbed Mingma’s chest. It was very dangerous to grab someone’s chest in such a high and precarious place. I was 100 yards below him at the time. I was leading on the right side while Karma Sarki was at Mingma’s side. We had already decided to descend because the three were not only getting in our way but were also picking fights. Simone uttered words that were abusive. Ueli also pointed his ice axe toward Mingma. I was scared at the time. We descended wondering why they had defied our warning and why they were keen on getting into a quarrel.
We arrived back at Camp II at around 2 p.m. Everyone was aware of what happened on the Lhotse Face because they all had tuned in to the same radio frequency. The overwhelming mood in the camp was that of resentment.
What did Simone and Ueli do to make everybody so angry? So here’s how I sum it up: The three ignored our warning and climbed up. Ueli grabbed Mingma’s chest, and Simone used foul words. While we were talking with Greg over the radio from the Lhotse Face, discussing our next move, Simone said: “We will see; we will talk with the fucking Sherpas. We will come there and see.”
Later, we heard that they resumed our work and began fixing the ropes for us. Sherpas fixed the ropes, but it was the foreign climbers who took the credit. Not many people know this. It is Sherpas like us who work hard, risk our lives but never get the credit. Simone is not unfamiliar with our mountains. He was invited to the meeting organized by SPCC [the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee is the closest thing to a governing body at Everest Base Camp], which oversees the rope fixing. But neither he nor the other two attended the meeting.
Explain how things got heated at Camp II. At Camp II, we decided to talk to the three and find out why they had ignored us. Many Sherpas were angry and said that they should be punished and banned from the country. This is not the first time these people have humiliated us. Greg told us that he would negotiate with them. Sherpas were saying that all three must apologize. Sherpas were obviously angry. We were also very tired. I think altogether there were about one hundred of us. Sherpas were also curious about Simone. They had heard that he was a chopper pilot but hadn’t seen him up close.
Mingma and I made our way to his camp, which was about 50 yards away. We were approaching Simone’s tent when a foreigner emerged from it. He turned out to be [Kiwi Peak Freaks’ guide] Marty Schmidt. He assaulted me and shouted: “Why are you here?” He said, “I’m Simone. What do you want?” We were only a few feet away from Simone’s tent. We had to defend ourselves, and the brawl ensued there. By this time, three other Sherpas joined us. Rocks started to fly and Sherpas started to shout at Simone and others, demanding that they come out of their tent.
Were any of you wearing scarves or oxygen masks over your faces when you went to Simone and Ueli’s tent? It was natural for Sherpas to wear scarves to protect from cold. I was also wearing a scarf.
Who kicked Simone while he was on his knees? Simone had already escaped. But later, some Sherpas demanded his apology. Then, Simone appeared and apologized. I don’t know who kicked him. I’m not sure whether it was a kick or a punch.
Steck seemed convinced that his life was in danger. Do you think the Europeans might have actually been killed? I have read in blogs that they claimed one hundred Sherpas attacked them, that they were trying to kill them, and they had to flee for their lives. That’s false. If Sherpas had really wanted to kill them, would they be alive now? Sherpas have all along respected the foreign climbers. All of us respect them. The relation has been that of trust and friendship. But it got a bad name due to one person—Simone. In reality, we were helpless. There was no one who spoke on our behalf. There were so many journalists in Base Camp. They were constantly blogging and updating on the brawl. But not a single journalist or blogger approached us. They were simply not interested on us. Even the government-appointed liaison officer didn’t bother to talk to us.
Was this an isolated incident or is there some deeper resentment that Sherpas are feeling toward western climbers as has been suggested by some Everest watchers? The resentment was always there. But incidents like this didn’t occur before because Sherpas didn’t take offense to trivial matters. But this time around, it was different. Earlier, most Sherpas were uneducated and they would grin and bear it. Earlier, we had suppressed our feelings.
Even in documentary films like Into Thin Air and Everest, you don’t get to see Sherpas. We have been left out. But we are the ones who, despite the risks and hazards, make sure that all is well on Everest. This is our life, our livelihood. It’s not only Sherpas but our government that has benefited a great deal from mountaineering. Moreover, the whites have also benefited from it.
People tend to ignore what foreigners do on the mountain, but when the scuffle broke out when we tried to defend ourselves, it became a huge issue. Our government also remained silent on this matter. For me, mountaineering is both a choice and a dream. There are Sherpas who despite being in their forties, still guide expeditions. Historically, they were not educated, but now they are. Many who are old don’t want their sons to work as guides because there are other options. If they can educate their children, a better future awaits them. I have been interested in mountaineering since my childhood. I used to see my father—he’s now in the U.S.—return from the mountains. I received training from the Nepal Mountaineering Association and know my job and responsibilities well.
For us, Everest is a goddess. We worship it before embarking on an expedition. I think the relation between Sherpas and foreign climbers is still good. It has been strong and cemented over the years working together for a goal. But this incident was waiting to happen, and it will happen again as long as Sherpas are humiliated.
Simone comes to Nepal because his livelihood is here; he is dependent on the mountains. Earlier, there was no one to oppose him. Sherpas were fearful for their own jobs. Earlier, they feared that if they angered him, they would lose their job. Now they have become more confident.
On the evening of June 22, some 16 to 20 local villagers disguised as Gilgit paramilitary officers hiked into base camp on the Diamir side of Pakistan’s 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat, the ninth-tallest mountain on earth, shouting in English: “Taliban! Al Quaeda! Surrender! Some fifty climbers from many different countries were on the mountain at the time, and more than a dozen were hanging out at base, waiting for better weather and acclimatizing before heading up to higher camps. The intruders roused these mountaineers from their tents, tied them up, and forced them onto their knees at gunpoint.
The attackers first demanded money. Interviewed by Peter Miller for National Geographic, Sehr Khan, a Pakistani climber in camp at the time, recalled one of the men saying, “We know you can speak English. Ask them who has money in their tents.” Khan continued: “Everybody was scared. We all said, ‘Yes, we have money.’ The foreigners said, ‘Yes, we have Euros. Yes, we have dollars.’ And, one by one, they took climbers to their different tents and collected the money.”
The intruders next destroyed all the cell phones, satellite phones, and two-way radios they could find. “[S]uddenly, I heard the sound of shooting,” Kahn recounted. “I looked a little up and what I saw was this poor Ukrainian guy, who had been tied with me, I saw him sitting down. Then after that moment, the shooting started in bursts. Brrrr. Brrrr. Brrrr. Three times like that. Then the leader, this stupid ugly man, said, ‘Now stop firing. Don’t fire anybody.’ Then that son of a bitch came in between the dead bodies and he personally shot them one by one. Dun. Dun. Dun. Afterward we heard slogans, like ‘Allahu Akbar,’ ‘Salam Zindabad,’ ‘Osama bin Laden Zindabad.’”
Several of the climbers pleaded, “I am not American! I am not American!,” to no avail. In the midst of the carnage, one of the few survivors heard an assassin proclaim, “Today, these people are revenge for Osama bin Laden.” Yet only one of the victims was an American citizen, and he was Chinese-born. Two others were Chinese, three were Ukrainians, two Slovaks, one Lithuanian, and one a Sherpa from Nepal. The cook was a Pakistani. In all, 11 people were killed.
Within days of the massacre, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Sunni Muslim branch unaffiliated with the Afghan Taliban, claimed responsibility for the deed. A spokesman said that the motive was revenge for the death, by an American drone strike, of the group’s second-in-command, and that the action had been carried out by a splinter faction of the TTP called the Jundul Hafsa. The Pakistani cook was apparently shot because the attackers assumed he was Shia. Sher Kahn believes he survived only because his name sounded to the killers like a Sunni cognomen, even though Khan is actually an Ismaili Shia.
In the more than two-century-long history of mountaineering, the murder of more than two or three climbers under any circumstances was utterly unprecedented. In fact, the killing of backcountry adventurers is so rare an event that the isolated examples resonate long afterward. In 1998, mountaineer and explorer Ned Gillette was shot and killed in his tent while trekking in Kashmir. But what was originally thought to be a terrorist act turned out to be a simple robbery gone wrong. Others were reminded of the four young American climbers who were shot out of their bivouac on a big wall in Kyrgyzstan in 2000, then taken captive, as chronicled by Greg Child in Outside and his book, Over the Edge. But in that case, the climbers were useful to the Kyrgyz insurgents who seized them only as hostages to be used as bargaining chips with the government—not as victims in a Muslim vendetta against the United States.
The Nanga Parbat massacre, however, bore spooky similarities to the 1995 kidnapping of six foreign tourists in Kashmir by a militant Islamic group called Al-Faran. In that case, one American managed to escape. The beheaded body of a Norwegian hostage was later discovered, but the other four victims were never seen again. A captured rebel not involved in the Al-Faran kidnapping later reported that he had heard that the four were shot to death after the kidnappers’ demands fell on deaf ears.
Nonetheless, the Nanga Parbat tragedy struck many observers as heralding a new and darker order of threat to adventurers afoot in Muslim countries. “It’s a game-changer, for sure,” claims one savvy observer of Central Asia.
“I found myself more disturbed by this tragedy than anything that’s come down in quite a while,” says Seattle-based climber Steve Swenson. “It’s the first time I’ve told myself, ‘Whoa, I’ve gotta pay attention now.’”
“I was deeply shocked and surprised,” adds Doug Chabot. “This came out of left field. But once I thought about it, I realized that this was a logical place for this sort of thing to happen.”
Swenson is a veteran of 11 mountaineering expeditions to Pakistan and is writing a memoir interweaving his climbs with the geopolitics of the region. Chabot, Swenson’s frequent partner, has gone on nine climbing expeditions to Pakistan himself; in addition, he is the co-founder of the Iqra Fund, an organization dedicated to furthering girls’ education in that country.
The impact on the Pakistan’ s tourism business, on which thousands of merchants and porters depend for their livelihood, promises to be both profound and long-lasting. “This is a great tragedy for Pakistan,” says Nazir Sabir, one of his country’s leading climbers and the head of Pakistan’s top trekking company. “I have talked to most of the operators,” reports Sabir, three weeks after the massacre. “Ninety percent of their trips are canceled.” For Sabir, it was a personal tragedy as well, for he knew the three Chinese climbers and the Sherpa well.
But many questions remain unanswered. If the Jundul Hafsa had struck to avenge the killing of Osama Bin Laden and American drone strikes on Sunni targets, why did they so readily kill non-Americans, even Chinese? Some observers speculate that the killers intended to disrupt the political bond between Pakistan and China, jointly planning a major dam project in the Diamir region. And there are strong indications that the Jundul Hafsa (or allied factions of the TTP) were responsible for a pair of attacks on buses in the Gilgit region in 2012, in which a total of almost sixty Shia were systematically identified and executed.
Others speculate that the poorly educated and mostly illiterate villagers who carried out the killings may have viewed all non-Muslims as “Westerners,” making little distinction between a Lithuanian or a Slovak and the Americans who launch drones against Taliban targets. As of July 22, the Pakistan government, under its new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, appears to be making a concerted effort to round up the murderers. Sixteen have been identified by name, and four arrested.
Doug Chabot believes that the Nanga Parbat incident has little to do with Sunni-Shia enmity. Both he and Steve Swenson cite the numerous IED and suicide attacks in which innocent Pakistanis—many of them Sunni women and children—are killed along with the targeted victims. Voicing his outrage in an open letter to the the American Alpine Club, Manzoor Hussain, the president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, wrote, “It appears that the mission of these enemies of humanity is to kill everyone living, including themselves, for reasons beyond our comprehension.”
Did the climbers at Nanga Parbat base camp just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Does the massacre mean that the several dozen expeditions now ensconced on the Baltoro Glacier in quest of the summits of the four other 8,000-meter peaks in Pakistan are equally vulnerable? The Diamir base camp lies at an altitude of 13,000 feet, only a three-day hike up the valley. To reach Concordia on the Baltoro at 15,000 feet, near which climbers establish their base camps, requires a rugged six-day trek through dangerously glaciated terrain. That inaccessibility in and of itself may impose a margin of safety for the climbers on the Baltoro. In addition, as Swenson and Chabot point out, there are very few terrorists in that part of Pakistan, and their arrival there would not go unnoticed by the strong military presence in the region.
In the aftermath of the massacre, nearly all the climbers on Nanga Parbat were immediately evacuated, leaving only a Romanian team on the opposite Rupal side of the peak—safer ground and harder to get to. Proceeding with their attempt, the Romanians placed four members on the summit on July 19.
Meanwhile, it was business as usual on the Baltoro. As of July 22, a handful of climbers had reached the summits of Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I, and Gasherbrum II, but others had perished in the attempt, including the great Polish pioneer Artur Hajzer. Hope is giving out for three Iranians stranded without food, water, or tents at 25,600 feet on Broad Peak.
On the formidable K2, some climbers had reached Camp III at 23,600 feet, but all the expedition members are now biding their time as they hope for a good-weather window to make their summit bids. Among their number is Mike Horn, the accomplished polar explorer, who with his fellow Swiss partner Fred Roux hopes not only to climb the world’s second-highest mountain but to paraglide from the summit down to base camp.
Whether or not the Baltoro climbers are ignoring a new form of terrorism in Pakistan remains to be seen. Doug Chabot is not optimistic. “I’m worried that climbers are the new easy target,” he says. “We’re unarmed, we have lots of money, and we’re high-profile.”
According to Chabot, “The Jundul Hafsa are essentially a gang—like the Bloods and the Crips. There’s no overall leadership of the Taliban, and once the U. S. pulls out of Afghanistan in 2014, all these small gangs will be fighting for power and territory across both countries. It’s going to be a free-for-all. With the Nanga Parbat killings, the Jundul were saying, ‘We own this place.’”
In 1994, Brent became the first American legacy to follow his father’s footsteps up Everest. That year, he also co-founded the Sagarmatha Environmental Expedition, a group that would clean more than 5,000 pounds of trash from the mountain. Brent summited Everest a second time in 2002, as part of the National Geographic Mount Everest Expedition that marked the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of the mountain. With his two children now learning the ropes, a third generation of mountaineering Bishops may soon be upon us.